A painful love affair

I fell in love. It’s a cruel love. The more physically and emotionally painful the love affair got the more I fell in love.

There are two things I learnt from the experience: I was not prepared for this. And. My head is my biggest opponent.

I will only talk about it here and now and then not mention it again as I can sense suspicion and envy when I talk to people about my affection. I encourage everybody to go and meet my love, to find out for themselves. I won’t mention it again until next year, when I will meet my new love again; hopefully better prepared by then.

However, I doubt I will ever be a match, no matter how hard I will try. This is probably part of the fascination.

It hit me completely out of the blue. I’m not the first one it happened to and many people have told me about it beforehand, warned me, and advised me on how to prepare myself for the encounter. Until I experienced it I had no comprehension of what it was going to be like. I thought I did, which was very arrogant of me. When it began I was completely stunned.

It started right in Harrietville, right in the middle of the village. And it wasn’t a gentle start, no easing into the idea of climbing 30 km. It was steep and you didn’t see it coming because the road turned into a left hand corner.

As soon as the road faced upwards climbers pulled away meter by meter. I put up some resistance initially but I knew that I couldn’t sustain the speed they would continue to climb all the way to the top. I had to give up sooner or later and settle into my own rhythm.

My legs were heavy from 130 km of hard riding and racing the previous day and they wouldn’t comply with my demand to turn the pedals at a faster cadence. I could still catch glimpses of colourful jerseys for a while amongst the trees further up the sloping road but most were soon out of sight. A few girls stayed within reach and a few girls I spotted down below. The first five kilometres were a battle with myself: “Turning around is a good option” a voice whispered and “There is no way I can do this for the next two hours”. My quads and hamstrings were screaming at me. I felt defeated and battered and wasn’t prepared to put up a fight. My heart wasn’t in it. However, the scenery was lush and pleasant so I kept pottering along. I wasn’t what cyclist’s would call “climbing” and I certainly wasn’t racing.

Five kilometres into the climb is “The Meg”. I don’t know what the name stands for or why this 400 m pinch of 12% gradient is named “The Meg” but someone had written in big chalk letters on the asphalt “Mediocre Experience Guaranteed”. I wanted to laugh but felt closer to crying. On top of the Meg a yellow line on the road marked the King Of Mountain for this Category One climb. I crossed the line alone. A little earlier the place had probably been filled with people clapping and cheering as the flurry of coloured jersey had gone pass fighting for KOM points but now the spot was deserted, peaceful and quiet, apart from my heavy breathing and the two girls a few meters up the road, laboriously turning their pedals just like me and another few girls further behind.

At this point I had stopped arguing with myself and resigned myself to the fact that this was what I was going to do: to climb Mt Hotham. I had stopped worrying about how far behind I was. I didn’t care anymore what my time was going to be at the end. The familiarity of the surrounding reminded me of the many climbs I had done before, with gum and pine trees lining the road and now and then a glimpse of the valley below.

And then I found my rhythm. All of the sudden, right after the Meg, the pedals turned over easier. My breathing settled and I felt lighter. The cadence increased and with it my speed. I started closing in on the girl ahead of me. I reached her wheel. I passed her. I went on, same rhythm, same cadence and same speed, turning over my pedals with a little less effort than before. I reached the next girl. I passed her as well.

For the first time since the start of the tour I felt like my familiar strong self. This went on for the next four or five kilometres until the road levelled to a mere false flat. I started hammering, fast cadence, big chain ring and speeds hitting 30 km/h. A quick check over my shoulder and I saw the other two girls not far behind. I knew that this section was not going to last forever and that it was a welcome opportunity to flush some lactic acid out of the legs. I changed a few gears down and spun my legs until the two girls had caught up to me. The gradient felt easy now after the past 10 km slog. The three of us started chatting while spinning in a high cadence. The trees started to thin out. The surrounding started to change but I was oblivious to the subtle transformation. We were high up now and the air was much cooler. If I had looked to the left I would have gotten an idea of what lay ahead but I’m glad that I was blissfully unaware.

We reached the National Park toll booths and one of the girls, who had climbed Mt Hotham before, launched into a quick brief of the last ten kilometres. Nothing she said worried me too much as I felt good. We had 45 km of racing in our legs, 20 km of those had been uphill and only ten kilometres to the finishing line. I did not take into consideration that it would take us close to another hour to reach the top.

The road steepened once again to 10% gradient and once again I wasn’t prepared for the pain it caused my sore muscles. My spirit dropped and I encountered old, unwelcome friends. “This is too hard.” “I don’t want to hurt like this.” These thoughts were like little goblins, sitting heavy on my shoulders, weighing me down while whispering in my ears. I had to shake them off and John’s words came to the rescue. I had sent him a text before the race start that morning saying that a DNS (Did Not Start) behind my name didn’t seem such a shameful thing. He had replied in his usual smart cheerful way: DNS = Do Not Surrender.

“Do not surrender” became my mantra for the next few kilometres as I came around the corner and faced the much talked about CRB hill. The landscape was barren and empty now. There were no more trees, only knee high scrub and a cold wind was blowing. Someone said later that it had been 4C on the top. Big orange poles were lining the road, indicating the rocky edge. I should have known. I should have listened to Alberto. I was cursing myself for my ignorance. I felt humbled and desperate. I was missing my 27 teeth cog on my rear cassette.

All I could do was to fly down the short and steep descent to gather as much momentum as possible to slingshot up the 1 km long, 10% gradient climb within the climb, as far as possible. Once the momentum was lost I was hardly able to turn the pedals over. I had to push through the pain, one pedal stroke after another, at a humiliating pace of 7 km/h. The two girls I had shared the last half an hour with pushed ahead. They had a little more strength left.

Our grade had been the last grade to start in the morning, therefore, while we were still climbing, the men’s grades were one by one and in small groups passing us like bullets on their way back down the mountain. Right in the most painful and humiliating moments of the climb I saw Bruce flying pass in a flash, screaming enthusiastically “Go Sandra”, seconds later I heard Craig’s voice and last but not least Mick, who finished 2nd overall in his grade, giving me a cheer while zooming pass.
There was no thought of giving up anymore, just the worry that my legs would loose the last bit of power and force me to give up so close to the top. The 2 km sign lifted my spirits somewhat but it would take me another 15 agonising minutes until I would eventually roll over the finish line to “Well done!” and “Good work!” from bystanders.

I was so relieved that I had made it. That was all that mattered.

Someone yelled at me to keep going, down the hill into Mt Hotham village, where I was supposed to drop off my transponder. I almost cried at the thought of having to climb the 1.5 km back up again afterwards. That’s when I spotted the little blue Toyota Yaris, the commissaire’s car, that had brought up my warm winter gear. I stopped, retrieved my little bag that held my camera, arm and knee warmers, beanie and full finger gloves and while I was rugging up, someone came over and offered to take my transponder off my bike for me. I could have kissed the stranger. I could have kissed and hugged everybody and anybody in that moment. I looked around, took in the beauty and a huge sense of achievement overcame me. All the pain was forgotten. That’s when I fell in love with Mt Hotham.

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33 Responses to A painful love affair

  1. Sev says:

    Unreal.And epic.Scott

  2. What an awesome experience. Thanks for sharing it with us. 🙂

  3. Ant says:

    Congratulations on your first conquering of the Hotham beast. She is a cruel mistress, and not easy to tame!Hope your Bright experience was worth the wait.

  4. Buttsy says:

    I loved reading this and I want to ride it again next year, it is tough, but I love the Tour of Bright, it is not tactical crap, it is good honest racing…and it is what makes us tougher…we;ll done, both Shane my partner and I really enjoyed your description of Hotham…..I had a 27…. and I am guessing you will have one next year…just in case…and I thought my 27 was “just in case” and I think I nearly wore it out…well done and see you next year

  5. trio says:

    Wow, sounds hard! Well Done!

  6. kate says:

    thanks for such an honest post, really good reading. i have no doubt you’ll be back 😉

  7. KaliDurga says:

    Wow. That was… awe-inspiring. Wonderful description of what must have been a fantastic experience for you, Sandra. Congratulations on conquering those little goblins on your shoulders.

  8. Gene Nacey says:

    That was an inspiring story, and you are a fine writer – well done on both counts (riding and writing!). If you’re going to keep writing inspiring stories like this, I’d like to add you to our “favorite blogs”. We just started a new website called Cycling Fusion – an online community of folks who train indoors and out. I think you’d like it too. We also produce videos with Aussie coaches too – you may be interested in coaching one of our rides someday. Check us out http://www.cyclingfusion.com

  9. Melanie says:

    Amazing! Excellent report, and congrats for not surrendering! 😀

  10. zanne says:

    well done. very well done!

  11. Philippe says:

    sometimes the biggest winner is not always the first to cross the line ;)Congrats!

  12. Will says:

    Fantastic,I now have a crush on Mt Hotham.And bonus KUDOs for snapping photos during an epic ride!

  13. LAUREN says:

    wow! totally epic.and so much about that internal dialog.good job girl!

  14. Anonymous says:

    Meine liebe Tochter !Ein ganz wunderbarer Artikel über die Liebe aber ich habe nischt verstanden !!!Selbst der Translater hatte grosse Mühe , mir wenigstens einen zusammenhängenden Satz ( den auch ich verstehe ) mitzuteilen ! Ist da eine Menge Physolophie dabei ?Ich gratuliere zu der Leistung und es ist Dir schwergefallen , diesen Berg zu erklimmen !Du hast dort viele Körner gelassen und Deine Gedanken über den Sport und über Radrennsport schweifen lassen , aber was ist das Ergebnis ?Dein staunender Vater

  15. Groover says:

    Sev – That’s exactly how it felt! Hope you’ve marked this tour in your calendar for 2009. :-)Lisa – It was the toughest climb I’ve ever done.Ant – Thanks for your heads up beforehand. The weather was perfect, too. 🙂 I have been talking with some friends and we might come down for a training camp sometime in March/April.John – Thanks for your support, buddy. Your text message really helped. :-)Buttsy – I really regretted not having put on the 27 and will definitely have it next year, no matter how fit. As mentioned to Ant, we are planning to come down next year for a training weekend around Bright. Maybe we could arrange to meet up with Shane and you? Trio – It was much harder than I had anticipated.Kate – Yes, planning next year already :-)KaliDurga – The goblins – yeah, right. I would prefer they got their own bikes and started pedalling instead of hitching a hike on my back. Gene – Thanks for the very nice comment and welcome to my blog. I’ll do my best to keep writing well. As for the riding part … I suppose I’ll start training harder.  I had a brief look at the website you mention and will have a closer look later. It sounds very interesting. Melanie – Thanks for your encouraging comments. Always love reading them. Zanne – Thanks.Philippe – You are sweet. Will – Welcome to the club.  BTW: I took the photos on the way down. I had sent the camera together with my winter gear in the car. I don’t think I would have had the energy to take photos and ride plus I wouldn’t have wanted to carry one extra gram uphill.Lauren – That’s one thing I’ll put on my list for 2009 – get my head sorted. Dad – Wir koennen uns heute abend unterhalten. Ich war am Ende 19te.Nikki – You should mark the date in your calendar for 2009. You’ll do well.

  16. Roadrider says:

    Sounds like one of those character-building rides. I wish we had some mountains around here. We could use more characters! Sounds like an awesome race!

  17. Chris says:

    Awesome report! Great job fighting through the pain and getting up that monster.

  18. CyclistRick says:

    Woo-hoo. Love epic hill climbs. I am quite fickle, falling in love with each big hill I climb. Some more than others. Congrats on making it to the top and keeping that inner voice in its place.

  19. Sue says:

    Wow – I think I was about 5 mins behind you up the climb and if I could only wrie as well, I think it pretty much summed up my story also. Thanks for putting down the words and the photo’s! Well done.(Now if only I could find that photographers that kept on appearings home page…….)

  20. Lawrence says:

    Awesome posts Sandra. Thanks for sharing.lawrence

  21. Groover says:

    Roadrider – Thanks for visiting and your nice comment. Yes, I hope I have grown up a little bit and that this experience will help me to be less of a whiner when the going gets tough in future. Thanks Chris. It was the toughest climb I have ever done, without any doubt.Cyclistrick – It was a bit of a battle but I still love climbing. It hasn’t managed to put me off. :-)Sue – Thanks for visiting and it was a tough day in the saddle for sure. I said to friends afterwards: “If you think you know about this climb by looking at the altitude profile you are wrong. Even being a cyclist I don’t think you really comprehend the pain until you have climbed Mt Hotham.” As for the photographer, please let me know if you find out his website, as he took some photos of me during the time trial that are probably not very pretty. :-)Lawrence – Thanks for visiting and I’m glad you liked the post. Don’t be a stranger.

  22. Kylie says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this story, and in such a beautiful way. I could feel your pain… My eyes welled up while I was reading it (you are abeautiful writer too). 🙂 What an amazing feat you have accomplished. I hope when I do my ride next year I can hold on like you did and get that same amazing feeling when I get to the finish!

  23. =kieran= says:

    That is BIG TIME!MEGA BIG TIME even!Amazing scenery! Congratulations on your epic adventure. It looks awesome!Kieran

  24. Donald says:

    Yes, I agree with Pedalman… great description and now I need a rest. CONGRATS GROOVER!

  25. Anonymous says:

    Hey Groover, I believe I had lunch with you in harrietville after you conquered Hotham. I was one of the motorcycle marshalls on the ToB. Its great to hear the ride had such a positive effect on you. It makes helping out runing the race more rewarding to see people enjoying themselves. Glad you enjoyed riding in our part of the world. You described your experience in words very well. With even more depth & emotion than when at lunch recovering. I'd suggest sending it to a few bike magazines. Top job, especially as english is not your first language. Puts me to shame. Well done Hope we see you next year…..with a 27.

  26. Groover says:

    Kylie – I’m sure you will. You sound like a very determined lady. Kieran – Thanks. Donald – I got all embarrassed when I read Pedalman’s post. Glad you agree with him. Now I hope you had a good rest and have recovered from it. :-)Anonymous – Yes, that was me. 🙂 Thanks for your very nice comment. I will be back next year for sure – with my 27. Watch out. 🙂

  27. Sprocketboy says:

    A great story about a great ride! The mental part of riding is one aspect where the pros are so far ahead of us but you showed how it is done! We have all entered the Long Dark Tunnel of Cycling; I remember as I rode the final 3.5 mile climb of the Mountains of Misery the ride officials were passing me uphill on foot! Respect.

  28. I have a high end bike boutique and have been preaching the concept of cycling as “The Fountain of Youth”. This story talks about the process of attaining that condition and does it so well, I couldn’t begin to copy. Therefore I will have to start quoting this story when people ask how to stay young!With permission, I would like to run this post in my http://blog.kgsbikes.com blog. Thanks so much for sharing.

  29. tiki skidoo says:

    Thank you for this story! I will pass it on to the new riders on the team so they can see how we all fight the battle of the self in the heat of the race. Inspiring!twitter: PDobrowolski

  30. Richard says:

    Very much enjoyed this most inspiring article.Congratulations!

  31. Great story. I know the feeling well. It's hard to talk about, yet it is so compelling and drives my own behavior in similar ways. Those who don't know rarely understand the intensity.

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